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UN seeks to save lives in future natural disasters

UN meeting seeks to save tens of thousands of lives from future natural disasters

Terming recent natural disasters in which hundreds of thousands of people died and hundreds of millions of livelihoods were lost "a wakeup call like no other," the top United Nations relief coordinator today called for more effective prevention and preparedness systems, especially for developing countries.

"These people did not need to lose their lives," Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and the Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland told a press conference in Geneva, where he is chairing a two-day meeting of the International Task Force for Disaster Prevention, bringing together all UN agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, and Member States.

"If we had had good early warning systems, much fewer would have died in the Indian Ocean tsunami. If we had had earthquake safe schools, hospitals and housing in Northern Pakistan, tens of thousands would not have lost their lives.

"If we had had better levees in New Orleans, those who lived in the lower lying parts of the city would not have had to see their lives devastated," he told a news conference, referring to the floods spawned by Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. Egeland noted that it was primarily in the poorer South that the systems are dysfunctional. Some 95 per cent of all deaths caused by disasters occurred in developing countries even though natural hazards were evenly distributed between North and South and East and West. Losses were 20 times greater in the South than in the North.

"This is one of the biggest challenges of our time and age, the need to make vulnerable people living in developing nations more resilient to natural hazards," he said.

The International Task Force for Disaster Prevention would in particular be focusing on the extreme danger that the tens of millions of people in 'mega-cities' in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East lived under. A quake could strike at any time, wreaking havoc.

"We need more resources for prevention and that money doesn't seem to be forthcoming," Mr. Egeland said, noting that earlier this year he had advocated that 10 per cent of humanitarian spending be oriented toward prevention and preparedness.

"How much does it cost? It doesn't cost much. We've seen that in Nepal, in the Kathmandu valley, where millions of people live and where a major earthquake may erupt, it takes 10 per cent more to build an earthquake resistant house than to create a death trap." For every dollar invested in disaster prevention, you reap 10-fold that amount later in reduced disaster intervention costs, he added.

The cause of disaster prevention and preparedness received a huge boost at the start of the year when experts said scores of thousands of lives could have been saved had a tsunami early warning system been functioning for the Indian Ocean.

Several hours passed between the quake that spawned the tsunami and the landfall of the waves that killed more than 200,000 people, wasting precious time in which many could have fled to higher ground. At present, such a system exists only in the Pacific.

Attending the news conference with Mr. Egeland was Yann Arthus Bertrand, a photographer whose photos of the impact of natural disasters on people are featured in the 2006 Disaster Reduction Calendar launched today.

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